|Kalkaska County Chairman George Shetler, who operates a dairy farm with his wife and family, says The Grand Vision can bring good jobs to the county’s towns and villages.|
George Shetler has lived in Kalkaska County since 1973, and he loves it. He says people are incredibly nice and decent, the landscape is beautiful, and the sense of community is strong.
But despite so many great attributes, Kalkaska is suffering economic hardship. There simply aren’t a lot of great jobs there, and a lot of residents must get in their cars every morning and commute many miles to work so they can feed their children, pay their rent and mortgages, and keep the lights and heat on.
“The economic climate is pretty poor right now,” said Mr. Shetler, who is chairman of the Kalkaska County Board of Commissioners and an owner of Shetler Family Dairy. “There are a few good jobs here, but most everybody ends up either going to Traverse City or Petoskey. Some people drive quite a distance.”
Mr. Shetler believes, however, that a strong turnaround is possible, and that Kalkaska can recover and thrive. But, he says, that requires certain steps.
First, he says, the county needs to agree on an economic development strategy that capitalizes on its main highways and rail line. And the county must review its master plan and then rezone to facilitate new industry.
Mr. Shetler has some specific development ideas: building a recycling industry, and getting in on the growing alternative energy manufacturing sector that Governor Jennifer Granholm says could create tens of thousands of new jobs in the state.
Like many others, Mr. Shetler thinks his county can actually make such things happen, thanks to the six-county Grand Vision regional planning and transportation study, which is now in its final phase.
After almost 18 months of citizen workshops, interviews, surveys, and balloting involving more than 15,000 people, the Grand Vision is ready to roll out a 50-year development plan. And Mr. Shetler thinks implementing it is key to spurring Kalkaska’s turnaround.
That so-called “Final Vision,” now posted in draft form at www.thegrandvision.org, documents what data from the study indicates a strong majority of residents in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Kalkaska, and Wexford Counties want: growth concentrated in villages and cities; convenient, walkable communities; work that’s closer to home.
Once the Grand Vision is finalized, it faces its ultimate challenge: Implementation by townships, villages, cities, and counties. So the project’s leaders are now turning to a number of area non-profits for help. Those organizations have formed six working groups that will identify goals, objectives, and action plans for the Vision’s six parts-growth and investment, affordable housing, transportation choices, food and farming, energy, and natural resources.
The groups have invited representatives from all local units of governments in all six counties-including all of Kalkaska County’s townships and municipalities-to an April 30 meeting at the Hagerty Center in Traverse City to discuss both the Grand Vision’s current status and its next steps, which are largely local ones.
Especially intriguing to Mr. Shetler is the Grand Vision’s plan to funnel financial incentives to local governments that pursue its basic goal of steering development into existing community centers.
Marsha Smith, executive director of Rotary Charities of Traverse City and a leader of the Grand Vision, said the funding sources for those incentives would be “some federal, some state, but most likely philanthropy, and some in terms of private, individual capital.”
The Grand Vision can also help Kalkaska in other ways.
For example, the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments says it is willing to assembling a program to help participating counties update their master plans so that they are compatible with the Grand Vision’s findings. Kalkaska’s master plan is up for its regular, five-year review.
Then there is the Grand Vision’s transportation plan: It would not only increase the efficiency of the region’s roadways, but could also increase public transit in the county.
And implementing the Vision could dramatically increase Kalkaska’s appeal to industry and new employees, too: Its strategy for community design lines up closely with trends that young people increasingly favor. If those trends-development in built-up areas, walkability, nearby workplaces-come to Kalkaska, Mr. Shetler believes, his county will be even more attractive.
“I’m 100 percent behind this, and several members of the Board of Commissioners are too,” he said, adding, “It is for the good of the county.”